What the Intelligence Community Can Teach the Rest of Government about Cloud


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Three lessons from the National Security Agency and the CIA.

The intelligence community, composed of 17 agencies with various missions relating to national security, is not traditionally known for sharing their secrets and methods.

At least, not on purpose.

Yet, the folks at the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency have been pretty straightforward discussing how they bypassed or beat down bureaucracy to achieve more than a modicum of success in technologies like cloud computing.

Indeed, agencies within the IC have been making use of the Amazon Web Services-built C2S cloud for almost a year, introducing new features along the way and making good on the agency’s promise to pipe innovation from the private sector to behind its walls.

Similarly, NSA’s move to store and process data in its GovCloud – open-source software stacked on commodity hardware – will alleviate major challenges the agency has faced as it collects an ever-growing amount of data from various surveillance efforts.

Building the GovCloud from the ground up, as NSA officials note, also allows it to “Snowden-proof” its data and better prevent future threats from its own.

Both these efforts truly run in tandem – agencies within the IC can make use of the clouds for various purposes, including provisioning computing, analytics and storage services. And while the IC’s mission is unique in government, its methods here aren’t secret and its use cases aren’t classified.

Have a plan: The most important aspect in the IC’s push to cloud was its plan. The IC was driven by its Information Technology Enterprise, or ICITE, framework. The strategy changed the IT business model for IC agencies, requiring they share services under a unified vision to securely discover, access and share information.

The CIA’s $600 million contract with AWS was a direct result of ICITE, whose author, IC Chief Information Officer Al Tarasiuk, retired recently.

NSA’s efforts go back four years, but importantly, the agency was very deliberate. For example, every piece of information ingested by NSA systems over the last two years has been meta-tagged – tagged with bits of information that include where it came from and w is authorized to see it – in preparation for the agency’s full-blown transition to cloud. That kind of foresight doesn’t happen by accident, and it’s integral to ensuring as seamless a transition as possible.

Leadership is key: Innovation in the private sector is usually driven by dollars. In government, it tends to be driven by mission. But nothing happens without leadership buy-in.

The IC was able to get the backing of top spy and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who signed off on the ICITE plan and promoted shared services in a several high-profile speeches. Within their agencies, a collection of change agents pushed forward on both cloud efforts. Neither effort was without its doubters. In the end, the innovators won out.

Choose your partners – and your platform – wisely: Little need be said about the importance of choosing the right industry partners or platform to meet the mission.

Government goes through procurement processes to pick the right solution. NSA’s choice to build out its open-source cloud on its own fit its mission better. For the CIA, partnering with AWS made the most sense considering how much it valued that pipeline for innovation.

It should be noted the CIA carried out a lengthy procurement for its C2S contract that extensively tested the performance of various providers. AWS – the provider it picked – scored the highest on nearly every performance measure.

(Image via brainpencil/ Shutterstock.com)

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